Costume designer Joan Bergin has being dressing men in tights for over 30 years and won three Emmys for her work on The Tudors. After working on Alan Rickman’s elaborate costume drama A Little Chaos, starring Kate Winslet, she is now designing for the more corporeal period drama The Vikings.
We spoke to her to get an insight into being one of the world’s greatest costume designers.
Her work in costumes all started when Joan was at the Stanislavski Studio in Dublin. She was interested in being an actor and was performing in the play A Month in the Country. She noticed the costume sketches and offered to make them. She went on to costume design for theatre and film and for the last number of years, television.
Which do you most enjoy designing for: theatre, film or TV?
I enjoy film the most. It is a very structured length of time and it’s quite intense.
Where do you draw your inspiration from for your costumes?
I am very interested in research, in both the social history and context of the script. I learn as much as I can about the period and try to imagine how they would live their lives.
Bloggers always try to tell you it’s not entirely accurate, but we consume every bit of knowledge we can about the period and run with it.
The costumes in A Little Chaos are fabulously flamboyant. How accurate are they?
The period was astonishingly camp, though I think camp is the wrong word. It was more the fact that these people lived together in court in their hundreds and the men tried to outdo each other as much as the women.
Stanley Tucci was a joy to dress and to be around. He will always be daring and, from what I read about the time, it was true that they were that camp.
What is it like dressing stars in tights?
Men are particularly coy and embarrassed about exposing their legs in period dramas. But after a few weeks they are strutting around enjoying themselves. When they get back into their jeans it is like seeing a man out of uniform.
If you had to choose between all the costumes you have designed, which would be your favourite?
It has to the Afghan coat that Daniel Day Lewis wears in The Name of the Father. In the story, Day Lewis plays a Belfast boy who finds some money and buys himself an incredible pair of hand-painted shoes and a long Afghan coat.
We bought the skin in from Afghanistan and had it made up here in Dublin.
Would it be possible for someone to consider costume design as a second career?
No, nowadays it would be hard. It is very much a collaboration between the director and the set designer and you have to have been a trainee and an assistant designer.
It is difficult for someone to enter after another career, although of course Tom Ford did it well when he directed A Single Man. Half of my time is the design and the rest is the interaction on the set, the down and dirty business of filming.
Actresses complain that there are no good parts for women over 50. Does the same apply in your side of the industry?
Most of the top names in costume design, such as Colleen Atwood and Sandy Powell, are women of a certain age. It’s a career where your experience is very much appreciated by a director.
Who have been your favourite actors to work with?
Daniel Day Lewis. His performances are always mesmeric. And Meryl Streep. I remember hiding behind a wardrobe and watching her in Dancing at Lughnasa and it was like watching someone go into battle in the most creative way possible. People think she is cold and technical but she has a great sense of humour.
Most awards are won by people who end up with bruises on their faces; the ones who throw themselves in to it. Other actors respect you if you bring naked truth to what you do.
If you could time travel, what period would you choose to live in?
For all the gorgeous dresses that women wear in period dramas, their position in those societies was awful. I would end up burnt at the stake.
After doing research for The Vikings I found that in that society women actually had a place in it that was defined in a good way.
Do you see yourself retiring?
I am already past retirement age and in between working on The Vikings I am working on a thriller, The Secret Scripture, with Vanessa Redgrave and Eric Bana. I’m also working on the revamp of Riverdance.
A Little Chaos is available on digital platforms on 10 August and Blu-ray and DVD from 24 August, courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment